100 Years – 100 Objects: Giant Longhorn Beetle

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 - meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Nancy, the museum’s director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and curator of entomology. She’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the rarest and most interesting insects in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and on hmns.org – throughout the year.

The name says it all:  the Titans were a race of giants in Greek mythology, while giganteus is Latin for giant.  This monster from the rainforests of the Amazon basin in South America is the largest beetle in the world, at least in terms of overall size (the African Goliath beetle, a scarab, is heavier).  The giant longhorn is a member of the Cerambycidae or long-horned beetle family, which includes over 20,000 species worldwide.  The family’s common name describes the very long antennae characteristic of most cerambycids – in some species over twice as long as the body.  Male cerambycids typically have longer antennae than females of the same species.  Shown here are a male (wings spread, longer antennae relative to body size) and female (larger, with somewhat shorter antennae). 

Learn more about beetles and their relatives in a visit to the Brown Hall of Entomology, a part of the Cockrell Butterfly Center – a living, walk-through rainforest at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the photo gallery on hmns.org.

Audubon Insectarium

Two weekends ago I went on my annual weird family adventure.  We decided to go to New Orleans this year for an Audubon filled weekend.  There were three adults, five teenagers and a five year old.  Seven of us drove the six hour drive, and I must say, it was very interesting.  I think we stopped 8 times for various things.  Our plan was to go to all the animal places there; the Audubon Insectarium, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, and the Audubon Zoo.  One of the main reasons I was so excited to go was the brand new Insectarium.  My friend, Jayme, is the manager and he said he would show us around.  If you are a fan of the show Dirty Jobs you may have seen Jayme on the bug breeder episode.  The show was great and very informative, but Erin and I are still a little jealous and wish we had thought of the idea first.  The Insectarium just recently opened in June and Jayme was ready to show it off.  I felt the same way when our own Entomology Hall opened, so I totally understood his excitment.  My 15 year old niece wasn’t too keen on the idea of a huge hall full of bugs, but everyone else was at least a bit intrigued.

The Insectarium was beautiful, creepy, and entertaining all wrapped up in one big box.  If anyone is making a trip to New Orleans, this is a definite MUST SEE venue.  It is located in the French Quarter across from the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.  I think the coolest thing about the insectarium was that the huge main hall way was covered with painted bugs and enormous models of various arthropods.  

They have a room that shrinks you down to the size of a small soil dwelling insect.  When you enter the room, a giant centipede greets you.  As you walk through the room, an earthworm (not an arthropod, but an annelid) is waiting for you to hop on it’s back and smile for a picture.  In this room you can also see ants foraging in their tunnels and taking care of their babies (larvae).  At the end, a gigantic trap door spider pops out and can give you fright if it catches you off guard.  This room is one of many that have different themes. 

They also have a section dedicated to termites.  You can pick up a phone and listen to the termites munching on an old house and you can actually see live termites in the wall.  The Louisiana swamp section began with an old bait shop.  An employee dressed up as a fisherman showed us various critters that can be found in the dirt, a great hands on activity for all ages.  My sister’s favorite thing about this part was a wonderful display of fly fishing lures made from actual insect parts.  After the bait shop you step right into a swamp.  The huge tree in the middle of the room is surrounded by different aquatic insects and fish.  You can even pop your head up inside the middle of one of the tanks to immerse yourself into the world of diving beetles. 

A very interesting room that I’m sure most people steer away from was the bug cooking cafe.  When I was there they were making cricket pancakes and tempura grasshoppers.  My five year old niece was all smiles when she got to eat one; at least one of them takes after me a bit!  Another awesome room was the 4-D movie we got to watch.  It was an awards show hosted by a beetle.  One of the awards he presented was to a honey bee for all the work she does to help produce fruits and vegetables. We could actually feel her flying around us. 

I’m sure all of you are familiar with the love bugs we get here in Texas in the spring and fall.  Well, they get them there too.  They even have an informative movie about the love bugs playing inside of an actual Volkswagon Beetle.  

I found a Giant Moth!

I could go on forever about all the stuff they have there, but I will just let you take a trip to New Orelans to see if for yourself.  I spent about 2 hours there, but I spoke with a lady the other day that spent 5 hours there.  I probably could have spent more time had I not been with a large group of people that were hungry and ready to move on to the aquarium.  If you enjoy our Entomology Hall here, you should definitely check out the insect zoos and butterfly houses in other cities.  There are insect zoos and butterfly houses all over the U.S.  I was fortunate enough to visit the St. Louis Zoo’s Insectarium a few years ago and it was amazing.  Some of the cool things they have there are bullet ants and burying beetles.  They even have a program that is researching the endangered American Burying Beetle

In college, before I had this job, I went to Cincinnati, OH for the Entomological Society of America Conference.  I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to check out the Cincinnati Zoo, which I knew had an insect zoo.  This was the first insect zoo I had ever seen, so I was pumped.  That was the moment when I decided that it would be so cool to work in a place like that.  I got to see beautiful purple beetles, honey pot ants, and giant walking sticks and I just fell in love with the whole scene.

Before you go on vacation, check out this website:  http://butterflywebsite.com/gardens/index.cfm to see if there is a butterfly house or insect zoo in the town you are visiting.  All the insect zoos around the country are different in many ways.  Some are enormous and some are very small, but we all have the same goal in mind.  We want people to love bugs as much as we do and understand how cool and important they are. 

Big BEETLE Bonanza!

Last week I was wondering around the containment room looking for something to do. It’s not like I had nothing to do, but I was just looking for something different that day. I decided to tackle the 24 containers full of dirt and grubs. About a year ago right after we opened Erin got an exciting phone call. A guy had LIVE beetle grubs in a wood/compost pile in his back yard and he didn’t know what to do with them, so he decided to call us. We jumped on this one and told him to bring them our way. Phone calls like that are normal around here, but they are extra special when it involves a large live insect that we get to keep. He brought the grubs in a large trashbag with lots of dirt and wood. It was like opening up a huge Christmas present with lots of little presents inside. We found 24 grubs. We weren’t sure what type of beetle they were, but we knew they could either be the Ox Beetle or the Eastern Hercules Beetle.

Erin and I were fortunate enought to raise a few Dynastes hercules grubs a few years back, but it was only a few, not 24. We decided to give each grub an individual container. We kept the dirt they came in and mixed in some potting soil, ecoearth, and lots of rotten wood. After that we sat back and waited. About once a month we would make sure they were all still alive and add new dirt and wood if needed. We would also check the moisture in the containers every now and then and added water as needed.

So . . . last week I thought I would add all new dirt and wood to all the grub containers. Erin and I had collected some rotten wood the week before just for that purpose. I was a little nervous to dump out all the dirt from each container because there was a possibility one of the grubs had pupated. Beetles have complete metamorphosis in which they have an egg, larva, pupae, and adult stage. The grubs enclose themselves in a cell of dirt and saliva before they go into the pupae stage and the last thing I wanted to do was bust open that enclosure.

This is what happened . . . I got the first container with great anticipation. I read that it takes about 12 months for the grub to grow, pupae, and become an adult. Maybe, just maybe we would have adults. I slowly and carefully dumped out the dirt and to my surprise there was NOTHING. I was very puzzled but Erin soon informed me that she had found a wandering escapee and put it into another large dirt bucket we had. So, I moved onto the second containter and found a grub. I added all new dirt and fresh rotten wood and went to the next one. I think I found 4 grubs and then my luck changed. I dumped out all the dirt and discovered an ADULT! I’m pretty sure Erin thought I was crazy because I screamed and was so estatic. We had a female ox beetle, Strategus aloeus. We really wanted the eastern hercules beetle, Dynastes tityus, but this was still cool. I found a total of 8 adult females but no males. Fortunately, we have a male that we collected last summer, so maybe we will get babies. On the last container that I opened I busted open a pupal cell and found a wiggly pupae. I decided to just leave it in the containter on top of the dirt. I kept checking on it last week and yesterday I found that a female had emerged from it. It always makes us feel like such good parents when we successfully raise baby bugs. All the beetles are on display in the insect zoo so you should definitely come and check them out.

One more quick story that happened last night after I wrote this blog. My husband, Nick, called me outside because he thought our dog had caught a snake or something and he wasn’t about to investigate it himself. I crept out into the grass and saw something moving. After I got a flashlight I discovered that is was in fact an Ox beetle, just what I had written about that day. Fortunately, it was still alive so I released it into my front yard away from my dogs. It must be the time of year for Ox beetles so keep an eye out in your yard for these amazing creatures.

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